An international team of scientists have confirmed solar fuel synthesis of water in to clean hydrogen fuel. Providing a proof of principle for the use of natural enzymes to replace toxic catalysts in the semi-artificial photosynthesis process.
Academics from the University of Cambridge and Ruhr University Bochum are furthering the quest for clean energy by improving upon previous boundaries to artificial photosynthesis.
Natural photosynthesis makes a great role model for the efficient conversion of sunlight in to sustainable energy. Plants have a green pigement called chlorophyl that uses energy from sunlight to rearrange carbon dioxide and water molecules in to glucose for energy and oxygen for animals to breathe.
If scientists can figure out how to replicate a similar chain of reactions they could replace the complicated machinery currently required for splitting water in to clean hydrogen fuel. The more closely you can model conversion after real photosynthesis the more direct Hydrogen production becomes and the less oil or other exogenous form of energy you will need.
“Artificial photosynthesis mimics natural photosynthesis and aims to produce sustainable hydrogen from water through water-splitting or carbon-based fuels from CO2 fixation, but is commonly hampered by expensive, toxic or inefficient catalysts,” he said. “We try to establish a new line of research by combining the best of the natural and artificial worlds and take highly efficient and abundant biological catalysts, such as enzymes, and combine them with synthetic materials in solar devices for efficient solar fuel synthesis.”
There are definitely other methods for producing Hydrogen fuel via solar powered electrolysis but currently fossil fuels are being used to power the splitting of water in to large amounts of hydrogen fuel. Even these other solar powered methods for hydrogen electrolysis still require a significant amount of machinery.
The best thing about hydrogen is that, unlike fossil fuel – it does not produce dangerous byproducts and can be extracted from ordinary salt water, which is the most abundant molecule on the surface of our planet.
In order to replicate photosynthesis scientists have figured out how to combine natural enzymes with artificial technology. Algae produces an enzyme called Hydrogenase that researchers have used in combination with artificial pigments to replace expensive catalysts. Furthermore the prototype is capable of converting even more light in to energy than natural photosynthesis.
The entire concept of semi-artificial photosynthesis follow closely in line with the recent trend of molecular technology. That is the idea of replacing “parts” such as cogs, gears and various other mechanics with molecules and atoms. Such radical innovations are common in quantum technology, where quantum states of matter are used to power next generation super computers and super cool liquid solar cells.
“Compared to the natural pathway, this new system makes wider use of the solar spectrum, delivers high conversion yields, and bypasses several competing metabolic steps, which is not achievable using synthetic biology or materials science alone,” Reisner said.
These new findings represent a solid proof of principle but until scientists and engineers fortify the system against external perturbations the process remains to fragile to go to market just yet.
EDIT: When they do refine the molecular device perhaps it could be re-purposed to convert carbon dioxide in to Glucose for NASAs current Mars competition. In so doing they could earn some money while simultaneously helping humanity colonize the red planet.